To mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, this month History Workshop will post a series of articles reflecting on the event and its legacy.
In 2018 the York Civic Trust unveiled a plaque commemorating Anne Lister as a “gender non-conforming entrepreneur”; the plaque adorned the Holy Trinity Church in York, where Lister and Ann Walker took communion side-by-side to secretly sacramentalize their marital union. Outrage ensued at the omission of the word “lesbian,” and thousands signed a petition requesting revision. In 2019, the pressure succeeded, and the plaque now commemorates “Anne Lister, lesbian and diarist.”
The petition to change the plaque raises interesting questions about commemoration and history. As critic Laura Doan writes, popular queer history and academic queer studies have quite different agendas. Popular history wants to coalesce around an identity, so an earlier generation strove to bring women who loved women out of the historical shadows. The petition itself and York Civic Trust’s willingness to engage with the dissent reveal a version of history that is about bottom-up public engagement, not just academics undercutting pride or civic leaders slapping on plaques to celebrate elites.
Yet the debate also reflects the fact that more recent generations claim more fluid definitions and focus more on trans and gender non-conforming identities. While some of those who objected to the original plaque may have been transphobic, those who signed the petition argued that gender non-conforming is not about sexuality, and that it is important to acknowledge Anne’s desire for and commitment to women.
What does the evidence tell us? Anne Lister did present herself in a masculine fashion, wearing a severe black waistcoat, striding about the moors, and cannily negotiating coal leases. Her lover Marianna referred to her as “Fred,” and Anne did not like to be reminded of her womanishness. Yet Anne did not want to be a man or to pass as one, as some people assigned the female gender at birth did in her time. As she told one lover, as a man Lister “should have been shut out from ladies’ society.” After all, a young bachelor could not have kissed young ladies on sofas in closed drawing rooms, let alone spent the night in the same bed, as Anne Lister often did with her lovers.
Yet Anne Lister’s importance in the writing of lesbian history can justify the plaque’s rewording. Before the diaries appeared, historians had discovered that nineteenth-century women often exchanged passionate letters to each other about hugging and kissing all night, but they explained this as “romantic friendship,” and argued that without a concept of lesbianism, women could not have conceived of desire for each other. When Anne Lister’s diaries appeared in Helena Whitbread’s pioneering version, this history changed. Anne Lister may not have used the word lesbian, but she declared, “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn my heart revolts from any other love but theirs.” This was not just a romantic love, for the diaries were so explicit sexually that rumors circulated that they were fake. However, these rumors dissipated, and Anne Lister took her place in history according to some as “the first modern lesbian.”
Yet Anne Lister did not see herself as part of a category, as “the first modern lesbian,” but as a unique individual. Quoting Rousseau’s famous dictum that “I am made unlike anyone I have ever met,” Lister asserted that her desire was part of her “nature”—but she is also pointing out that she was a singular personage, unlike all others. When she met feminine women attracted to other women, she seduced them; when she met masculine women, she lied to them about her own desires instead of making common cause. Anne Lister certainly would not have signed a petition about a plaque, because she identified not with a community but with her own singularity.
A plaque, of course, cannot convey the complexities of a life; for instance, the debate has also slighted issues of race and class. Anne’s first lover, the half-Indian heiress Eliza Raine, has been largely ignored. Patricia Hughes’s transcriptions of Raine’s and Anne’s early diaries reveal that they came up with Anne’s secret code together, and dreamed of living and loving together as learned ladies. Tragically, Eliza Raine faced racist abuse from her social circle, and Anne abandoned her; Eliza broke down and spent the rest of her life in an insane asylum.
By celebrating Lister as an entrepreneur, the first plaque also played into a neoliberal celebration of business and ignored the complexity of Lister’s class position. To be sure, Lister engaged in coal mining and built an inn, but she drew on her inherited wealth and Ann Walker’s fortune; she prided herself on her lineage at Shibden Hall, and turned up her nose at the self-made entrepreneurs of Halifax who earned their fortunes in trade.
Sally Wainwright’s BBC/HBO series “Gentleman Jack” excellently conveys Anne Lister’s terrible snobbishness as well as her ability to drive hard bargains. The series, drawing on research in the diaries most recently by Anne Choma, largely sticks to the actual events in Anne Lister’s life, with some minor exceptions, and draws much of the most memorable dialogue from her own words. Nonetheless, to create such a dynamic heroine, Sally Wainwright portrays Anne Lister as nicer than she actually was. Lister was a social climber who manipulated and lied to her lovers and pursued Ann Walker for her money. Nonetheless, Suranne Jones does a thrilling job in conveying Anne Lister’s vigor, seductiveness, masculinity, and canniness. In the end, it is Anne Lister’s complexity that makes her interesting for historians, not her place on a plaque.